When climbing photographer Irene Yee (she/her) goes searching for subjects to photograph, she isn’t looking for muscle, elegance, or even skill. That’s because, for her, climbing isn’t about reaching the top of the route. Sending isn’t the reason new climbers get into the sport, and it’s not the reason people stick around. Instead, she says, the magic of climbing is all about the emotions you experience on the wall. It’s about pushing yourself and overcoming. It’s about joy. It’s about supporting the people you love. If you’re going to capture climbing, Yee says, you have to start there.
One look at Yee’s work—bold, vibrant images that have graced climbing magazines and major brand campaigns alike—and that down-to-earth adventure philosophy is front and center. For her, it’s been that way since the very beginning. When Yee first picked up a camera, her only goal was to document the struggles and triumphs of her friends. Now, five years later, Yee (often known by her Instagram handle @ladylockoff) has made a career out of photographing the people she’s closest to. And no matter how famous she gets, she says she’ll still prefer photographing intermediate climbers to the pros.
For one, she says, friends are usually the most comfortable unleashing their full range of emotion in front of you, and that’s what makes a compelling photograph. For another, Yee’s climber friends are often women and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color), groups that have been historically underrepresented in adventure media. She wants to uplift their stories because that’s the kind of imagery she needed to see when she was young, new to climbing, and uncertain if she belonged.
Yee grew up in New York but didn’t start climbing until after college, upon moving to Las Vegas (where she’s now based). She went to a meetup group at a local climbing gym, where the group was so welcoming and inclusive, she went a second time. After that, she was hooked. And though Yee has said that she was inspired to stick with climbing because of a single photo, it’s not because the image featured a subject who was sending hard or pictured on some majestic line. It was a photo of a woman with chalk-covered hands and painted nails. Upon seeing it, Yee realized that you didn’t have to be a specific kind of person to become a climber; there was room for everyone.
Her journey since then has been full of ups and downs—and a whole lot of learning along the way. She recently sat down with Public Lands to share her wisdom on work, climbing, and finding your voice.
PUBLIC LANDS: You switched careers during the pandemic, going from theater technician at Cirque du Soleil to full-time photographer in 2020. Was it scary to make the jump?
Of course. It’s always nerve-wracking leaving something stable. The choice was sort of forced on me by getting laid off during the pandemic, but it was also a push and a catalyst I needed. By that point I’d been an amateur or hobbyist for maybe four or five years, and I had the skills and experience. [Getting laid off] was a reminder that I absolutely needed to trust myself that I could do it.